Moving into emergency or transitional housing is stressful for the entire family, including pets. With cats ranked as the second most popular pet behind dogs, we know that there are many people in crisis who have cats and are seeking assistance. Cats entering domestic violence and homeless shelters are likely to experience anxiety and may struggle to adapt to new surroundings. Cats have highly developed senses, and the presence of unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells can be distressing. You can help set cats up for success by learning how to recognize and alleviate stress and create cat-friendly shelter spaces! 

What Does a Stressed Cat Look Like?

Domestic cats are adept at masking discomfort, so recognizing signs of stress can be challenging. “Acute stress” is a short-term response to a passing stimuli. For example, a cat may experience acute stress when they receive a vaccine, encounter a barking dog, or meet a new person. Some signs that a cat is experiencing acute stress include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Pinned back ears
  • Hunched or crouched body
  • Hiding
  • Refusal of food
  • Hissing or growling
  • Swatting or attempting to bite

Unlike acute stress, “chronic stress” develops over a long period of time and can negatively impact cats’ health and wellbeing. Behavior changes associated with chronic stress are often subtle and are sometimes misinterpreted as disobedience or “acting out”. These include:

  • Excessive grooming
  • Litter box misuse
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Persistent hiding
  • Eccessive vocalization
  • Destructive behavior
  • Sensitivity to handling

If left unaddressed, chronic stress can make cats more susceptible to illnesses like upper respiratory infection (URI) and feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC). It’s important to learn how to read cats’ body language and behavior to understand when they might be feeling uneasy and take steps to address it. To learn more about feline body language visit the Humane Society of The United States and Fear Free Happy Homes

Reducing Feline Stress

Most cats spend a great deal of time indoors so setting up your shelter space with cats’ comfort in mind can do a great deal to improve their quality of life and reduce feelings of stress.

Provide Appropriate Hiding Places

Cats love to hide! Have you ever had guests over at your home, and your cat ran under the bed? Hiding makes them feel safe and provides them with an opportunity to separate from situations that make them uncomfortable. Providing cats with appropriate and safe hiding spots allows them to adjust to new environments at their own pace. 

Many cats feel more comfortable and confident when elevated off of the floor. Consider installing cat shelving or beds in elevated spaces, or adding cat trees to your pet-friendly rooms. If using cat kennels in your shelter, consider a tiered option that allows cats to take advantage of vertical space. 

In addition to elevated space, many cats also appreciate having small, concealed spaces in which to hide. You can provide this in a variety of forms, from covered pet beds to cardboard delivery boxes. You can also make a cat’s carrier a safe space for retreat by adding their favorite blanket and toys and partially covering it with a draped towel. 

Create a Relaxing Space

With staff, clients, and children running around, emergency shelter environments can be hectic and loud. This influx of activity can trigger stress in cats – and some people! Setting up a calm, quiet space will benefit both cats and their owners.

Create more pleasant lighting by using floor lamps, desk lamps, and dimmable switches. Cats are creatures of habit, so prioritizing routine and consistency is important. One way to encourage this is by starting nighttime hours at the same time every day, and limiting the use of bright, overhead lighting during those hours. 

Did you know that cats sleep between 12 and 18 hours a day? Ensure your shelter felines are getting enough beauty rest by encouraging quiet hours during the day. Talk with shelter residents about setting aside a few hours each afternoon to use quiet voices, limit loud music, and reduce disruptions to sleeping pets. Purchasing sound-reducing curtains or wall panels can also help cut back on noise! 

To help combat odors, consider purchasing air purifiers for your shelter. These not only help to control allergens, they also help reduce unwanted smells from pet food, litter boxes, and more. This can be especially helpful for cats as their sense of smell is very strong, 14 times stronger than humans! 

There are products to help calm cats through smell, such as Feliway, which comes as a diffuser or spray that releases a copy of cat pheromones (a.k.a. “happy messages”). Feliway can help make cats feel more at home and reduce symptoms of stress like scratching, urine spraying, conflict between pets, hiding, and more. 

Include Cat Necessities

Litter boxes: Make sure every room with a cat has at least one clean litter box, and if there are multiple cats in a room, follow the rule of one litter box per cat, plus one extra. Cleaning boxes regularly is crucial, as leaving waste in the box can spread bacteria, lead to unwanted smells, and encourage litter box avoidance. 

Bedding: Provide plenty of beds and blankets for cats. It can be helpful to use the pet parent’s clothing as bedding, as the smell is comforting. Cats can be a bit picky so if possible, provide a variety of blanket options with different textures to ensure that there will be one that the cat enjoys. 

Food and water: Access to food and water is a necessity, but it’s also important to find food and water options that the cat prefers. Providing the same food that the cat was fed at home is preferable, but if that isn’t possible, you’ll need to find a food that the cat will eat. They can be notoriously picky eaters, so this may take some trial and error! Additionally, when cats are stressed they may drink less water which can cause dehydration. Try providing cat water fountains as many cats prefer running water over stagnant water.

Note: Cat water fountains should be cleaned regularly depending on the amount of cats using it, with once a week being a typical cleaning schedule. Further, cat fountain filters should be changed every one to three months. Failing to clean the fountain or change the filter can cause bacteria and mold to grow, which can pose serious health risks to cats. 

Don’t Forget Enrichment! 

Cats need mental stimulation that allows them to exercise all of their senses. This prevents boredom and anxiety and improves their daily life, including their ability to adapt to their new environment.

Toys play an important role in maintaining cats’ mental and physical health. Provide a variety of toys, such as kicker toys, teaser wands, food puzzles with treats, cat tunnels, or the popular Ripple Rug cat activity mat.  

Cat trees and scratching posts provide cats a way to get off the ground, hide, play with other cats, sleep, stretch, and keep their nails trimmed.

Windows (a.k.a. “cat TV”) provide excellent entertainment for cats. Cats have a high prey drive and enjoy “hunting” the birds and rodents outside. Other outdoor animals and people are also fun for cats to watch and follow around. Additionally, windows provide cozy warmth from the sun that help promote relaxing cat naps. 

Remember to lean on your animal welfare or veterinary partner for guidance and advice to help the cats in your care. Making your shelter environment less stressful by adding elements that decrease anxiety is important, but there may still be times when cats need professional medical and behavioral help from a veterinarian. 

If you represent a domestic violence or homeless shelter and want to learn more about “catifying” your space, check out the Don’t Forget the Pets Coaching Program where we provide free one-on-one support for organizations building pet programs!

Author Profile

Ketia Johnson is a Community Outreach Coordinator with RedRover. Prior to joining the Don’t Forget the Pets team, she earned her Master’s degree in Anthrozoology from Canisius College and spent over 8 years working in veterinary medicine at animal shelters.